I sent this to email@example.com and they felt it would be a good point of discussion and suggested I post it here...
Votes and flames on StackOverflow
First off, I want to say that the site is seriously the best thing I've found online this year. It really could be (if it's not already) the wikipedia of support forums. I'm glad to finally find a support forum that actually feels like a real group with real people, not simply a bunch of 15 year-olds saying things like "Um, by PC do you mean Windows, guahhhh!"
On the other hand, that sort of attitude is on the rise on the site, and that makes me really upset and nervous that the honeymoon may be coming to an end.
To be fair, even the condescension sounds more mature or at least more intelligent than that found at most forums. But nevertheless it still reeks of intimidation and condescension, both of which are unhelpful.
As someone who works at a help desk, I very often find myself slipping up and saying things like "I'm sorry, do you mean you want me to help you set up your wireless? You don't really install the internet onto your computer." I am not a saint but I do know that the worst cases are those where the user does not participate and doesn't want to help themselves. And when I lash out, I'm only making it harder on myself and any other tech support consultant that inherits the disconnect that I have reinforced by being snide to someone who just wanted help.
It's one thing to need more information, or to feel frustrated that someone's question is vague, doesn't use the right terminology, or is simply lazy. But it's another thing to burn that user. The site is not open. They took the time to sign up (even if that is quite easy thanks to OpenID), and they probably skipped over half a dozen other sites and opted for SO because it is easy to search, easy on the eyes, and actually has intelligent and informed answers. Their reward for being brave enough to admit they need help should not be "Surprise, we're assholes, too!"
Someone asked a question about how to "Send letters with PHP to and from Gmail" or something along those lines. Everyone had to take a shot at his use of the term "letters" instead of "emails". English is not everyone's first language, especially when it comes to math and science. I personally found it confusing but also fairly charming that he came up with "letters". Granted, letters can also refer to "alphanumeric characters" but it took me all of 5 seconds to take a guess at what the intention was.
Not only did he get a highly melodramatic comment that led to a respone comment from the user with a frowny emoticon, he also got a "the answer is to type gmail php into the search box in the corner". Not to mention other smartass comments in other answers.
I work in IT, and we love to bust each others chops. We're geeks and we're boys (mostly) and it's all in good fun. But when there isn't a face to the screenanme, and it's a stranger, and it's someone's first time asking a question, it's not always in good fun. I've seen some fun jabs on SO on occasion, but I'm starting to see way more frustration and hostility.
The subject line mentions votes and flames because I've taken to voting down answers and comments I think are negative in any or all of the above-mentioned ways. And a vote down results in a suggestion box of "down votes should include comments". Any time I've voted something down with a follow up comment, I've gotten burned. I go down a point. Voting down with a comment, it seems, is effectively voting myself down. The only thing worse I can imagine, as far as petty and malicious behavior, would be if I left a comment but didn't cast the vote and still lost a point out of spite.
I really hope you can keep the site's integrity and good-nature (and good-humor) up, but also I think there needs to be some rethinking on the voting system. Perhaps a flagging system would be better. I down-voted the "use the search box"comment and was disgusted to notice that it was up-voted twice already. This type of attitude should not be praised or encouraged. I think those types of answers should be flagged, reviewed, and removed if necessary.
The point of a forum site is to share knowledge and help out people who are stuck, desperate, or just lost all together. When we start to assume what people should know before they DARE ask a question, we just further perpetuate the standard that IT and CS guys are bitter unapproachable toads, and it's that lack of support that results in bad design, bad architecture, and overall bad code.